In the early 90s, a retired truck driver and bargain hunter stumbled upon an American masterpiece. The snappy fast-talking trucker, Terri Holton, took her retirement as an opportunity to scour off-beat thrift shops, garage sales and salvation army stores for anything of value. She was an eBay auctioneer before the internet even existed.
And one afternoon in San Bernardino, it panned out. She found a large abstract piece with paint drizzled down the canvass. To the ordinary eye and Holton herself, it was interesting and something you’d gift to a friend for their birthday. But the painting was in actuality a Pollack original and she purchased it for a mere five dollars.
Around the same time in New York, Louis CK was a struggling comic. His meandering style of absurdist comedy didn’t endear him to the crowd. SNL had passed on CK and most comedy clubs were dying as the public’s interest in stand-up comedy waned. Few would have predicted he’d become the biggest name in comedy. These two people seemingly have no parallels in their life, but their rise in wealth and fame is tied to something neither would like to admit — the role of luck.
Everyone is a victim and beneficiary of luck. We’re all aware that luck has an outsized impact on the outcome of our lives, but we’re left without any real recourse. Is the appropriate response to merely burrow our heads and trudge forward? That’s certainly the typical response. However if you accept that luck is controllable, or at least influenceable, it becomes about moving from a passive role of watching randomness to the active role of manufacturing outcomes.
Money Ball and Evaluating Skill:
Manufacturing outcomes starts with understanding skill and success. Within a sub-culture there is a general barometer of success. Whether it’s a metric or an unspoken rule of thumb, there’s a tendency for gatekeepers to use similar measuring sticks. But unfortunately, for the doers that metric is often outdated. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball examined this very phenomenon in baseball. In a sport driven highly by randomness, how can you win a championship?
In the early 2000’s the Oakland Athletics were one of the poorest teams in the league. They reached the division series and came up against the richest of the baseball world in the New York Yankees. The Yankees not only beat them in the series, but then proceeded to take their best player, Jason Giambi, the following season. The wealthiest team had thoroughly bulldozed them.
A’s general manager, Billy Beane, was at a crossroads. His team couldn’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox of the world. The team’s owner was unwilling to expand the team’s payroll. He needed a new way to reevaluate talent and get good players at the cheapest price possible.
The time-honored tradition was to evaluate talent though seasoned scouts who judged players on the fundamentals: their speed, quickness, arm strength and a few other metrics they’d deemed essential to baseball success. It had been this way for over a hundred years in the sport.
Young players’ careers hinged on whether scouts thought they had a mixture of “the right stuff.” But a new school of thought led by statistics nerds forced itself into the picture. Beane and a few others surmised that the only questions that truly mattered was: “Does the player get on base, and how many bases do they get?”
The same year they implemented their revolutionary model, they broke a 100-year-old baseball record by winning 20 consecutive games. They subsequently made it to the playoffs with the lowest salary cap in all of baseball. Beane had figured out a metric that was a truer observation of reality and was able to capitalize on it faster than teams that were far richer. The statistics approach was pioneered by Bill James, a security guard at a pork and beans factory.
Plenty of baseball executives knew of the theory, but it was outside conventional wisdom and they arrogantly ignored it. During the season, Beane was openly mocked in the media and by former members of management. But by year’s end, he was receiving offers from the likes of the Boston Red Sox.
Even within more esoteric fields like comedy, it’s a familiar predicament. The comedy scene is dictated by a similar farm system. Comedians rise from open-micers to openers, features and finally to headliners. But for many comedians that reach the status of headliner, their expected stardom and success never comes. They routinely headline comedy shows, but never break into theaters or television. They are stuck in the club circuit.
Comedians like Louie point to a different metric of evaluating talent. For him he sees it as the uniqueness of the comedian’s voice. In an interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, he said “Actually, it’s usually the comedians that start awkwardly and badly who end up being interesting.” Other comedians like Neal Brennan, co-creator of The Chapelle Show, have pointed to the type of laughter they get as more telling of a successful show than the attendance size. He routinely tells comics to listen to the type of laughter they are getting onstage.
“Is it a type of laugh you like?”
True Score Theory
The metric of success is about a concept known as “True Score Theory” which says that observed outcome is skill + luck. It sounds simplistic, but it’s a gauge of how much skill influences an outcome. Author and Chief Investment Strategist at Legg Mason Capital, Michael Mauboussin, gives the example of a math test as a way to explain it. The grade is ultimately a mixture of what you studied, your skill, and material the teacher added that you didn’t know, i.e. variance or luck.
Appreciating the right metric to use for evaluating one’s success is only the beginning of influencing outcome. But to separate oneself from the Terri Hortons of the world and move towards the Louis CKs takes much more refinement and attention to the subtle ways luck influences everything. Most of us, especially artists, choose to ignore variance, luck and this is to our own detriment.